David Cloninger

Bianca Cuevas learning to keep her speed under control for USC women

South Carolina guard Bianca Cuevas (1) drives on a break-away layup against Auburn during an NCAA college basketball game in the Southeastern Conference women's tournament in Jacksonville, Fla.
South Carolina guard Bianca Cuevas (1) drives on a break-away layup against Auburn during an NCAA college basketball game in the Southeastern Conference women's tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. AP

Dawn Staley was always working on her game. It’s why guards playing under her usually adapt to her style of play in some ways.

You’re weak in some areas, get in the gym and work on it. It’s not like Staley won’t let you know of the deficiency in practice. Not many, if any, will ever be as good as Staley was – but you have to try.

Bianca Cuevas is trying.

A year ago, her freshman season included pieces of dazzling brilliance, but was equaled by moments of head-scratching frustration. One of the fastest players Staley has ever coached, Cuevas’ speed was her greatest blessing and curse.

Get a steal near mid-court, there won’t be anybody to catch her. Easy two points.

Yet go pell-mell down the lane, with teammates waiting for an outlet pass and opponents beginning to plant their feet, and one of three things would happen. Over-the-head blind pass picked off, charge or missed shot.

Not exactly the kind of plays Staley lauded in film sessions.

“I think I’ll be fine if I just stay focused,” the soft-spoken sophomore said Tuesday, before the Gamecocks left for Sioux Falls, S.D., and the Sweet 16.

Focus has come in increased doses for her this season, and Staley’s hoping it combines with strong past postseason performances this weekend. USC takes on Syracuse, a ferocious pressing team that forces an average of 24.5 turnovers per game, and strong point guard play will be paramount to the Gamecocks advancing.

Staley knows what senior starter Khadijah Sessions will give her at the point. Steady, reliable and always hovering just below the point where fuse meets a power keg of points. Sessions will be trusted with handling the press early.

Cuevas will play, though, and it will be up to her to handle the pressure. After recent strong games, Cuevas needs to fully be “Good Bianca,” and not the Mr. Hyde that sometimes comes around.

“Really pleased with her progress,” Staley said. “She’s been a lot more focused, she’s been putting in a little bit more time into her game.”

Cuevas had a fine postseason last year, averaging seven points and collecting four steals with eight assists in five games. It was Cuevas who entered the Final Four game against Notre Dame with the Gamecocks down big early, settled her teammates down and got them back in the game.

In two postseason games this year, Cuevas has 16 points, four steals, three assists and three turnovers. Syracuse will provide a larger obstacle, but Cuevas is playing with confidence.

“You just got to look for the open areas and the person and just handle it,” she said about the Orange press. “I think I’ve been focused more and shooting the ball better.”

Staley credited Cuevas’ commitment to getting better. She’s realized that straight talent, although immense, isn’t always going to be the answer.

“Basketball’s going to be good to you,” Staley said. “And it’s been that for her, so we’re looking forward to her continuing that because she gives us something totally different than probably anyone on our team gives us.”

Coach Dawn Staley previews South Carolina's Sweet 16 trip and the first game against Syracuse.

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Bianca Cuevas bio

Pos.: Guard / Height: 5-6

Hometown: Bronx, N.Y.

High school: Nazareth Regional / Honors: McDonald’s All-American

Class: Sophomore

Major: Criminal justice

Key stats: 6.7 ppg; 59 assists; 46 steals; .758 free throw %

NCAA Regional

Who: South Carolina (33-1) vs. Syracuse (27-7)

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Sioux Falls, S.D.

TV: ESPN

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